I recently put together this compilation entitled “Field Recordings from the Sahel.” It’s what it says on the tin. Since the inception of this blog (way back in 2009), field recording has been at the core. The term gets thrown around a lot. While much the content in our records could be considered so, they are foremost musical recordings that have been captured with a single microphone, in one take, and aim to present the music as it sounded at the occasion.
This compilation is a bit different from the label content. The recordings here are varied: ambient soundscapes of an early morning in Timbouctou, a prayer call in rural Mauritania, late night radio broadcasts of Wolof griots. A lot of what’s here has been featured on this blog over the years – the result of traveling with a sound recorder ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
Moving from blog to “record label,” the Sahel Sounds project has focused primarily on music to transmit information and commercial records to finance the work (my own research and musicial careers of our partners in W. Africa). In addition to the music, I’ve tried to use the records as opportunities to provide a little more context, using them to translate Tamashek poetry,support visual artists in Bamako, or create transcultural genre experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to step outside of the “label” context to create work not bound by the particulars of the vinyl record market.
The compilation is available streaming + with free download from bandcamp. In addition to the compilation, I produced a short book “Folktales from the Sahel,” – a collection of stories, myth, and urban legends, collected on the past decade of travel.
The newest release from Sahel Sounds is titled Agrim Agadez , a compilation of field recordings of guitar music from the Sahelian empire of Niger. Focusing on guitar music throughout the country, and recorded over many years of travels, Agrim Agadez celebrates the diversity of the instrument in the contemporary Sahel.
Like most of the Sahel, the guitar is found in every corner of Niger. Whether acoustic, electric, or built by hand, guitars are highly prized possessions and continue to inspire. Every corner of Niger has particular languages, customs, and cultures, and each corner has taken the instrument and transformed it in its own special way: from bar bands of the southern Hausa land, pastoral flock owning village autodidacts, rag-tag DIY wedding rock musicians, to political minded folk guitarists. Agrim Agadez follows the sounds overheard playing on cassettes, seeking out the once legendary local heroes in their hometowns, and stumbling upon musicians in accidental chance encounters.
For readers of the blog, it’s familiar territory. Much of the music has been shared here over the years, as yours truly was faithfully updating the blog from remote cyber cafes and borrowed cellphone wi-fi. It’s also a continuation of two other records that delved into the same subject, the debut Ishilan n-Tenere, and the subsequent Laila Je T’Aime. Field recordings have always been a foundation of this work (if for anything else, an opportunity to travel!), but there is a certain element to the live recording that is hard to replicate in a controlled sterile space of the studio.
While it would be nice to claim that the record is comprehensive and academic, Agrim Agadez is not that album. This is not a record of research, but something to listen to. You can draw your own conclusions. However, it is a faithful document of the guitar as it’s heard, experienced in the open air studios of Niger with a single microphone, with backdrops of children’s voices, crickets, and village ambience. But above all, it’s a record of people who once upon a time, decided to pick up the guitar and play a song.
The record is available now on vinyl from our shop with 16 page liner notes w/ photos and bios of the bands. You can also listen/download on bandcamp.
The new music video for Ami Yerewolo’s“A San Nièfai” takes Malian Hip Hop into a science fiction future. In the video, a trio of post apocalyptic survivors wander through the Malian countryside, stumbling on the destroyed and smoking ruin of the capital. Meanwhile, they are pursued by a vehicular gang with bandits piled into the back of trucks and screaming stunting motorcycles. The video alternates between Ami rapping in an underground mine shaft and a loose narrative that ends in a showdown between two warring factions. And of course, a dance sequence.
The stylistic choice for the video isn’t wholly surprising and is clearly inspired by the Hype Williams directed 2pac video for California Love and blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road (the former of course being a remake of the 1979 Mad Max, alas). Aside from being a colorful video with a plethora of special effects and tentative narrative structure, the video stands out particularly in the West African context. It is well likely that “A San Nièfai” is the first commercial science fiction production from Mali.
I spoke with Sidiki Goita, director of the video, and co-founder of Vortex Groups, a Bamako based special FX startup. Goita is an engineer by trade, but over the years he’s grown his company to a dozen members, all in their 20s. While working on 3D design, logos, and advertising, Vortex Groups supplements their work with music video production. It’s a lucrative avenue of the struggling Bamako music industry, particularly in contemporary Malian Hip Hop. As Internet enabled cellphones replace the old bluetooth networks of music trading, sites like RHHM and Bamada-City are gatekeepers of new media. Malian Hip Hop artists rely on music videos to advertise and promote their brands. Vortex’s approach varies from the other studio houses, Goita explains. “When Vortex Groups produces a video clip, we make it as though it was a feature length fiction. We write a script, assemble a technicians, make a storyboard…and after finishing all these stages we proceed to scouting the location.”
For what appears to be a large production with cast and costumes, the video for “A San Nièfai” was assembled in pure DIY aesthetic, relying on found materials and free locations. The costumes were salvaged from found materials, transforming motorcycle helmets into armor, calabash turned into shields, and large woven potato sacks for clothing. The video was shot 40 km outside of Bamako at an old quarry for laterite, the iron rich clay used for the quintessential red mud bricks seen across West Africa. Goita was given creative freedom from the artist to make something very different from the standard Bamako Hip Hop video: “The idea of the clip was to break the monotony and the uniformity of the current African videos that loop on the music TV channels, summed up with drone shots of a singer surrounded by a crowd of dancers and also scantily clad girls. The second goal was to shock viewers to the consequences of civil wars, by showing apocalyptic images of their city.”
Science fiction has always been a genre of speculation and warnings, projections that reflect on utopic and dystopic futures. While fantasy and horror have a place in oral tradition, science fiction doesn’t exist in Mali. Only now are the possibilities being explored as technology allows low budget experimentation to redesign reality through 3D animation, compositing, and green screen. So why isn’t there more science fiction? “The problem that persists is a conflict of generations,” Goita explains. “The old ones who have mastered the network of studio production are not ready to leave the beaten track. They are content with simple cinema without technical stakes – just simple stories of love and politics.”
Sidiki Goita says the ultimate goal with Vortex Groups is to produce feature films. Their music videos are calling cards, examples of what can be accomplished with a little investment. “In the West, the cinemas are exhausted, they only make remakes and films of superheroes,” Goita says. “Like our mining resources, our stories and legends are not even exploited to 5%…The younger generation does not have access to funding to produce high-quality films. Foreign partners should trust African youth to finance projects. With less than $20,000, we could would make an African version of Mad Max which could rival productions with 10 times the budget!”
Mona is an imposing figure. He once stood much taller than he does today – age has taken it’s toll, and he walks slowly, slightly hunched over. But when he steps out of the shadows in a purple frilled jacket and pants to match and sporting the same afro he’s worn for decades, Mona is timeless. And then he begins to play. Mona is a demon with the guitar, playing noisy trilling solos, lifted from the Jimi Hendrix catalog, that soon degrade into shredding improvisation. After the ends of his song, he continues to dance over the frets of the guitar into a tangle of feedback and noise. The phrase “Hendrix of the Sahara” is used by music PR and journalists to make tenuous links to anyone from W. Africa that plays an electric guitar, invoked so often to be utterly meaningless. This may be the singular case it is warranted. Mona’s music is “unlike” anything in Niger, unlike anything in West Africa, perhaps on the entire continent – and the most reminiscent of the Voodoo Child.
Mona is something of a legend. Mona formed his first group in 1970 (“the Crocodiles”) followed by what today stands as one of the oldest orchestras in Niger: Azna de L’Ader. Known for their very specific and very Hendrix inspired psychedelic rock, Azna is the legendary group that everyone in Niger knows about, and no one outside of the country has ever heard of. I’d heard stories of Mona for years – “he plays the guitar with his teeth!” – not without a certain reverence or fear. After watching a ridiculously intense YouTube performance from the late 90s, I decided to travel to Tahoua to meet with him.
Mona (real name: Abdoulaye Bouzou) is part of the milieu of the Niger’s “first generation” of modern artists (a genre aptly titled “musique moderne nigérienne”) – alongside other famous musicians like Ali Djibo, El Hadj Taya, Mamman Garba, and Mamman Sani Abdoulaye. Most of this modern music came from this upper class; the aforementioned were all teachers, professors, and governmental officials. “It wasn’t music for everyone in town, but for other officials,” Mona explains. Although the group rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, they remained largely a local phenomena in the region of Tahoua. “There was no studio – that was why people played for a long time without recording. There wasn’t an idea to record and sell music. Before it was just the radio or the television [making recordings]…if the wasn’t the TV that passed in the region, there was no chance.”
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Mona’s group Azna de L’Ader played a mixture of popular music that came in from abroad, both from Europe and the West: “Since our childhood, we listened to lots of Western musicians….Johnny Holliday, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Mitchell, Elvis Presley.” On equal footing was Benin’s Polyrhythm de Cotonou. “They were real musicians,” Mona explains. “We were the same age, but they started before us….[as Muslims] we didn’t make music, it wasn’t allowed. But they learned in the Church. They learned the guitar, the drums. They made gospel music.”
Incidentally, the name Azna refers to the pre-Islamic animist religion, still practiced in Niger. The oft mentioned Bori, notable for their ritual spirit possessions are a well known sub-group of the Azna. While Mona’s music flirts close to the hypnotic Bori possession music, it is also most definitely rock. For Mona, the two are not mutually exclusive. Rather than Hendrix influenced rock, it may be the other way around. “When the Europeans took blacks as slaves in the US, our ancestors who went there brought their culture with them. So they mixed their music with modern instruments, and they created the blues, and that invented rock n roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, everything. The blues comes from here. We sing, we cry, and it brings you just into the trance. We make Bori, we do Voodoo. Our ancestors brought this to the US. Little by little, it took in everyone.”